Cornell men’s soccer heads into the 2021 campaign expected to compete for the Ivy League crown. But before this point, it had been a tale of highs and lows for the Red during the last four seasons.
In 2016, the team limped to a 1-14-2 record. Just three seasons later, the Red finished the year undefeated at home and third in the Ivy League, with a 10-5-2 overall record. Head coach John Smith has led an impressive rebuild so far, but expectations are even higher this season. The Red slotted in at second in the 2021 Ivy League Preseason Poll, only behind Yale.
Despite not playing in 2020 due to COVID-19, Cornell returns formidable experience throughout the lineup. The Red returns 10 of 18 players who appeared in at least 10 games in 2019. Still, they will have to rely on contributions from underclassmen who have yet to see the field if they are to put together a successful season.
“We have about 16, 17 guys that haven’t played a single minute, 16 or 17 that have played significant minutes,” Smith said.
In 2019, Cornell led the Ivy League with 1.94 goals per game. This year’s team will have to fill the shooting boots of John Scearce ’20, who paced the Red with five goals during the season. All told, 16 of the 31 goals were scored by members no longer on the team.
However, Cornell will return familiar faces to the attacking fold. Important to Cornell’s success on the front foot will be a trio of seniors — Harry Fuller, Charles Touche and Emeka Eneli. Fuller, a two-year starter by way of London, England, scored four goals and tallied three assists in 2019. He will play an important role as an attacking midfielder this season.
At striker, an exciting name to watch is senior Charles Touche, who excelled in 2018, leading the Ivy League in goals (eight) and game-winners (five). However, he struggled to regain the same form in 2019, finishing with one goal and two assists. In United Soccer League Two play this summer, Touche turned in an all-conference season, scoring 10 goals in 14 games.
Encouraging players to compete in summer leagues was an important strategy to offset the loss of in-game experience due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was great for them to remember what it’s like to get butterflies before a game and feel a bit nervous,” Smith said. “I’m glad a significant portion of this group was able to do that.”
Senior captain Emeka Eneli will start alongside Touche at forward. The 2018 Ivy Rookie of the Year has been a consistent presence in the attack, but he will take on an even bigger role this season.
The Red also returns junior Griffin Garrard, who displayed an impressive ability to find the back of the net while tallying four goals in 2019. Garrard could slot in at midfield or on the wing.
The midfield will be bolstered by experienced returners, including senior Tyler Bagley and senior co-captain Jonah Kagen. Bagley started 10 games in 2019. He recently turned in a superb summer in USL League 2, scoring 12 goals and earning a spot on the all-conference team.
Kagen, meanwhile, is more of a defensive midfielder. He brings valuable experience as a two-year starter and will help solidify the middle of the pitch.
Also expected to start at midfield are juniors Brandon Morales and Kurt Lehmkuhl. Morales has flashed goal-scoring potential, converting two shots and leading the team with four assists in 2019. Lehmkuhl started nine games in 2019 but rarely was featured in the attack.
In 2019, Cornell held opponents to 1.17 goals per game, a mark that was third-best in the Ivy. The performance was especially impressive given the Red started several underclassmen in their defense.
However, the Red will have to do without a vocal leader of their defense, goalkeeper Ryan Shellow ’20. Instead, junior Brady McSwain will earn the starting nod in goal. As a backup, McSwain started five games, making 14 saves and allowing six goals. The Red had a 2-2-1 record with McSwain manning the net. Senior Andrew Hevener and freshman Benjamin Collins round out the rest of the goalkeeping unit.
Defenders Connor Drought and Tate Keir will play an important role on the backline this season. Drought, a junior from Mukilteo, Washington, started 16 games as a freshman and earned second-team All-Ivy. He is slated to start at left back. Keir, a senior who was second-team All-Ivy in 2018, will return for his third season as a starter.
Senior Nick Allen, who started seven games in 2018, could play a role as well. Some new defenders to watch for include junior Mac Naggar, a transfer from Iona College, as well as sophomores Wilson Eisner and Mateo Rodriguez. Naggar started 11 games in 2019 for an Iona squad that reached the NCAA tournament.
The Red faces a stiff road test in its first game at No. 18 Wake Forest. Kickoff is scheduled for Sept. 4 at 7 p.m. in Winston Salem, North Carolina.
From there, Cornell will hit the road to face High Point on Sept. 7 before returning home to Berman Field for matchups with St. Joseph’s and Santa Barbara on Sept. 10 and Sept. 12, respectively.
“We’ve got a really good schedule, a challenging one, but an exciting one too,” Smith said. “We kick off on the road against two incredibly talented teams, which is great. Then we get back here against St. Josephs and Santa Barbara, which will be good games as well.”